It’s been a while since I’ve had a good story first pixelart game come my way. It seems the indie scene has begun to move away from them as they seek out more profitable ground in zombies and survival simulators. That has left something of a void behind, leaving only those with a real passion for this particular style of games behind. So whilst I may not be spoilt for choice like I once was I can’t deny that the quality has definitely gone up a notch or two, especially from my favourite publisher in this genre. The latest title from Wadjet Eye Games, Technobabylon created by the developers at Technocrat Games, is no exception to this providing the kind of deep story and fanciful pixelart that has become a signature of all their published games.
In the distant future of 2087 the world has changed dramatically with the wonders of science working their ways into our everyday lives. Genetic engineering is commonplace with children and adults shaped by gengineers, allowing them to sculpt their perfect human form. The story takes place in the City of Newton, the ultimate expression of a science based society that is controlled by a benevolent AI called Central who handles the daily machinations of the city. Many now choose to spend their days in the Trance, a fully simulated reality where ideas flow freely, consciousnesses meld and drift apart and, of course, anything goes. It seems like a picture perfect future but there are many actors that would upset the balance or turn it in their favour.
Technobabylon brings the standard pixelart affair making no use of modern graphics tricks to jazz up the visuals. It was interesting to see so many different rendering options available through the setup program however none of them seemed to make much of a difference to the graphics on screen. I’ll admit I only played with a few of them, mostly to see if I could get it out of the 4:3 aspect ratio it runs in (you can’t) so there’s potentially a setting in there that makes everything look amazing. Still Technobabylon has its moments where I was thoroughly impressed with what they managed to accomplish (the final 3D-ish scenes are a good example of this) with the pixelart medium, something I’ve come to expect from the games Wadjet Eye publishes.
Technobabylon is your typical pixelart adventure game, taking it’s cues from the multitude of titles of yesteryear and those from the renaissance period that pixelart games have recently enjoyed. At it’s core Technobabylon is a puzzler, challenging you to find the right thing to combine with the other thing, which dialogue options to choose to get someone to say the right thing and figuring out what you need to click on to make something happen. Like most modern incarnations of this genre Technobabylon has an improved and simplified inventory system making it a lot less of a bother to try item combinations than it once was. Unlike some previous titles though there’s no combat to speak of and any situation that may result in your untimely demise will simply respawn you right where you left off. So overall no real surprises here in terms of mechanics as is pretty standard for many games in this genre.
The puzzles are pretty well done for the most part, ensuring that you soak up every skerrick of a clue to make sure you can progress to the next stage. Some of them require you to have a little bit of knowledge of how some kinds of systems would work (say for instance what security mechanisms a hand print scanner would employ) but for the most part you should be able to figure them out based on clues in the current room/level. I will admit that I got stuck about a half a dozen times, reaching for the walk through guide (which I honestly wish all review copies would come with) to get me past a section I just couldn’t seem to figure out. The puzzles I figured out on my own though were quite satisfying, especially when I felt I figured something out that the developer obviously thought would stump me for a while.
I can’t remember what the engine was that Technobabylon mentioned it used at the end however it suffers from probably one of the most annoying bugs I have ever come across. Should you use SHIFT + TAB to open up the Steam chat window whilst playing the game all the dialogue boxes from then on flit past, as if you’re holding down the space bar or left mouse button. This issue will persist for as long as you remain in the game and can only be fixed by exiting out and coming back in again. I first noticed this with A Golden Wake (although it was triggered by ALT + TAB) which, I’m guessing, uses the same engine. It’s not so much a critique of the game per se, the developers fixed numerous issues that I saw during my playthrough before release date, more something that budding indie devs might want to be wary of.
As is trademark for nearly all Wadjet Eye games Technobabylon carries with it a fantastic story, one that’s steeped in futurism and radical ideas about what technology can bring us. All the main characters are given plenty of time to develop their back story which are expertly intertwined with each other. Most characters have oodles of non-critical dialogue options which serve to build out the story. Even better still is the fact that the vast majority of content within Technobabylon is voice acted so you’re not going to be stuck reading walls of text for hours on end. The only fault with Technobabylon’s story is that it lacks a really deep emotional hook to draw you in, something like the opening minutes of Ori and the Blind Forest, which would really seal the deal on this otherwise great story.
Technobabylon is a great example of the modern pixelart adventure game, bringing along with it a great story that’s just oozing futuristic tones. It might not be the most revolutionary games, playing it safe by keeping the mechanics simple and the puzzles accessible, however the experience it provides is above many of its competitors. If, like me, you had been left wanting for a good adventure game for some time then you really can’t go past Technobabylon as it’s sure to provide you with many hours of enjoyment.
Technobabylon is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total game time was approximately 7 hours. A copy of Technobabylon was provided to The Refined Geek for the purposes of review.
For gamers who’ve been craving solid stories where the player has real agency the last couple years have been a real boon with dozens of titles being released. Telltale remains the king of this particular genre and their style can be seen influencing nearly all others, for better or for worse. Life is Strange, the second game from Dotnod Entertainment who’s only previous title was the rather lukewarmly received Remember Me (although I quite liked it), definitely draws inspiration from the Telltale style but strives to stand out through their use of mechanics and more down to earth setting. For the most part it pulls this off however there are a few key things that, unfortunately, get in the way of the story.
Max had always dreamed of this and it was finally happening: she was going to Blackwell Academy to study under one of her photographic idols. It was so surreal coming back to the place she left 5 years ago, her home town having changed in subtle ways. Everything was going well, or as least as good as it could be given her shy and recluse nature, until she found herself in the grips of a strange nightmare in the middle of class. Upon waking however it appeared that she wasn’t asleep and events that had happened before seemed to be happening again, like the strongest case of deja vu you would have ever experienced. Her return home was about to take a turn for the supernatural.
The art style was described by the developers as “impressionistic rendering” which essentially boils down to them using hand painted textures. In some parts this works well, especially in the wider shots where the detail isn’t so important, however up close the stylization loses its lustre very quickly. This lack of detail is present in almost all scenes from the character models to the environments to even the animations which, jarringly, never seem to line up with the character’s speech. Indeed out of all the aspects of Life is Strange the visuals are the weakest, often getting in the way of the story coming across due to how jarring they are.
Life is Strange is your typical story-first adventure title where the focus is on developing the story and characters whilst giving you some real agency in sculpting how the story develops. However you’re given the unique ability to rewind (but not fast forward) time, allowing you to do things that would otherwise be impossible. Interestingly this ability is extended to all the key decisions within the game, allowing you to see how each of your choices would have played out. You can’t rewind infinitely though but it does give you an indication of how a particular decision would’ve played out and the potential consequences that could arise from it. Apart from that there’s a few rudimentary puzzles thrown in here or there, all of which make use of the rewind mechanic, but they’re a minor distraction from the rest of the game however.
For those of you who played Remember Me the rewind mechanic will be somewhat familiar as it’s very similar to the memory replay mechanic. Most of the time you’ll be rewinding to try and catch some kind of detail or figure out a series of events that needs to unfold in order to progress to the next stage. Interestingly items you pick up and your position in the world don’t change when you rewind, something which takes a little getting used to since that’s different from most other time travel games I’ve played in the past. Suffice to say the main mechanic is novel and definitely makes Life is Strange stand out a little more from the current crop of story-first games.
Thankfully Life is Strange does avoid the common pitfall of attempting to put in too many game mechanics that many story first games do, usually to avoid being lumped in with the walking simulators. The puzzles are relatively simple and the game usually gives you an indication of what you need to do through audio cues or visual prompts so it’s unlikely you’ll get stuck on them for any length of time. Instead Life is Strange encourages you to explore around your environment, uncovering bits of back story for all the characters you’ll come across and gaining insight into what Max is thinking. It’s a good balance, one that I’m hopeful more games like this will be able to achieve so their stories can shine rather than being hidden behind needless tedium.
As this is the first episode of what’s shaping up to be a 5 part episodic game it’s hard to get a complete picture of the story however this first instalment is a strong one. Life is Strange does require you to explore quite a bit in order to get the full picture and there’s a treasure trove of back story hidden in the journal that’s never really made reference to. However if you spend the time to explore, read and soak in the various details of the story it’s clear that there’s a rich world of detail that the writers are drawing on and the supernatural aspects are simply an aside rather than the main draw card. Overall this first episode sets up the game with a strong base, now all that’s left is to see if they can build on that and, potentially, give Telltale a run for their money.
Life is Strange is an interesting change of direction for Dotnod Entertainment, casting off their action roots in favour of a story first experience that, for the most part, achieves what it set out to. It’s quite clear where the majority of their focus was however and unfortunately some aspects of the game suffer because of it. I’m often of the mind that graphics don’t matter if the story is strong however Life is Strange’s art style and simplistic lip syncing detracts heavily from its well crafted story. This is somewhat made up for by the novel time rewind mechanic and strong story but it’s hard to escape it when you’re constantly reminded of the rather below par visuals. I am interested to see where this story goes however as it has the potential to set up Dotnod as one of the few developers able to execute well in the episodic game space.
Life is Strange is available on PC right now for $4.99. Total play time was 2 hours.
You’d have to be willfully ignorant to not have come across the massive sensation that is Game of Thrones. I have to admit that I’m one of those people who only discovered it through the TV show, much at the behest of many of my friends who’ve urged me to read George R. R. Martin’s epic works. Still it’s easy to see just how detailed the world he created is with deep and complex political landscapes that stretch back over countless years. It was interesting then to hear that Telltale Games would be doing a title within the franchise as whilst they certainly have the pedigree to bring a story to life the world of Westeros isn’t exact their modus operandi. Indeed their entry into this gritty and uncaring world seems to signal that Telltale wants to begin rising above its current station, and that it has the skills to do so.
MINOR GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS BELOW
The Forresters have been the bastions of the Ironwood forests for countless generations and loyal to the Starks for just as long. That loyalty is what led them to be in attendance for the horror that was The Red Wedding where many of their men met their fates. You are Gared Tuttle, squire to Lord Gregor Forrester, who managed to escape the violence in order to carry a message from your lord back to the house of Forrester. Unfortunately the tragedy that befell you at The Red Wedding has also spread to everywhere else and now the house which you have long been loyal to is under threat. Can you fight your way out of this? Or will you use the more delicate hand to beguile your enemies and have them fall on their own swords?
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Telltale has a very distinctive style when it comes to the games they create, favoring the heavy bordering and solid colours that are typical of their graphic novel inspired works. This has been reworked somewhat for Game of Thrones, dumping the cartoony look and instead aspiring more towards realism than any of their other games have done previously. This has also come with an upgrade in visuals in almost all regards although the semi-stiff animations and less-than-stellar attempts at depth of field do leave a little bit to be desired. Still it’s hard not recognise that this is most definitely a big step up for Telltale games and potentially signals towards them feeling comfortable enough to experiment with the format they’ve perfected.
The signature Telltale style makes a return in Game of Thrones, putting aside most traditional game mechanics in favour of focusing on developing the story and the characters within it. The majority of action sequences play out as a series of quicktime events, throwing up keys to press or mouse movements to make in order to get through a section. The heart of their style is, as always, the dialog system which includes a breadth of options that will shape the game in numerous ways depending on which one you select. Unlike previous Telltale games however Game of Thrones jumps between several different characters, mimicking the format of its source material. All in all there’s nothing too revolutionary about the game itself which isn’t surprising since this is a Telltale title.
Indeed Telltale is probably one of the few game developers out there who are able to get away with doing this since the innovation comes from their ability to tell a good story rather than develop new and novel game mechanics. For story-first titles it’s often better to err on the side of simplicity as too many mechanics, or just a couple poorly constructed ones, quickly distract from the story. This is what titles like Always Sometimes Monsters got wrong, thinking that a variety of different mechanics was necessary in order to keep the player engaged. Nothing could be farther from the truth, so long as the story that you’re telling is engaging enough.
Depending on what your current level of involvement is with the Game of Thrones franchise the story will likely mean a different many things to you although it does tend to assume you’re coming from the TV series rather than just the books. The story begins at the end of the third season and is slated to continue through until the end of the fifth. This means that, unless you’re up to that part in the series, there’s potential for bigger events to be spoiled and pivotal characters that have just recently appeared in the series likely won’t make a great deal of sense to you. Thus to properly experience the story you’d best be placed to catch up to the end of the third season. Who are we kidding though, you’ve already watched it twice.
The story itself is quite engaging, following a thread that’s apparently present in the books but yet to be explored in the series, retaining many of the qualities that made Game of Thrones so popular in the first place. The story isn’t written by George R. R. Martin himself though, rather he sent along his personal assistant Ty Corey Franck (a successful writer in his own right) to be a story consultant with Telltale. Since this is just the first episode there was still a lot of worldbuilding to be done so it wasn’t the most gripping story yet, however many of the events that have taken place are setting the scene for much grander things to come. I definitely have high hopes for Telltale’s version of Game of Thrones and I’m interested to see where they take it.
Game of Thrones is another excellent story-first title from Telltale games, taking the essence of what made their style so popular and maturing it to match the gritty world that George R. R. Martin had created. The graphics are the most notable departure from the Telltale style, ramping it up to a more realistic style whilst still retaining the same feel. However the core of what make their games great, their skill with storytelling, is very much the same and the world of Westeros provides a great canvas for them to paint a new story. Overall for fans of Telltale or the Games of Thrones franchise this title will be certain to delight and is most certainly worth the price of admission.
Game of Thrones is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked.
I can remember 8 years ago when Dreamfall first came out and my collective group of friends all talking about playing it. This was just when my love of cinematic styled games was starting to bloom with titles like Fahrenheit only just having graced the shelves. However I was told with no uncertainty that if I was going to play Dreamfall I had to play its predecessor, The Longest Journey, before I could dive into it. Considering that game is some 40 hours long (or more, depending on how long you got stuck on the rubber duck puzzle) it would be no small investment but suffice to say I’m glad I did. After a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign Red Thread Games is finally continuing the story of Zoe Castillo and her journey to save two worlds from the impending darkness.
Betrayed by a mother she only just found out was still alive Zoe has been trapped in the story time, a place which exists between the twin worlds of Stark and Arcadia. Her body lies motionless in the real world, hooked up to a machine that ensures she stays alive but makes no attempt to bring her back. She has found purpose in this world however, saving those who’ve become trapped in their dreams by the Dream Machines by guiding them back to the light and warning them of their danger. This is not what was intended for her however as the darkness that threatens to engulf both worlds still spreads even in her absence. It is time for Zoe to make a return to the real world and to return to her journey.
Dreamfall Chapters looks decidedly previous gen in terms of graphics as it lacks much of the graphical fidelity of its current gen brethren. Primarily this is a function of its use of Unity and cross-platform ambitions which limit the amount of eye candy you can use. However that being said it’s far from an ugly game, with lovely expansive environments that are just brimming with details. It’s definitely best played with an expansive view (both figuratively and literally) as the bigger picture is so much more than the sum of its constituent parts.
Dreamfall Chapters takes inspiration from the Telltale style of story based games, stripping away all but the essential mechanics and instead placing a heavy focus on the story and player agency. You’ll be following the stories of 2 individuals, the first being Zoe Castillo, the main protagonist from the first Dreamfall game and Kian Alvane, another one of the main characters from the previous title. Dreamfall Chapters retains its adventure game roots, giving you all manner of puzzles to solve in order to progress the story, however it now also includes choices, both major and minor, that will affect the outcome of story. It’s a formula that’s worked well for Telltale for the past and to their credit Red Thread Games have managed to take the essence of it and make it their own.
In terms of game play this first instalment (Dreamfall Chapters is now an episodic game) feels a lot like an extended tutorial coupled with a reintroduction to all the characters, worlds and stories that exist within them. A lot of the mechanics you’ll encounter, like shining a light on things to reveal something that can’t be seen otherwise, are mostly things you’ll only encounter once in the game but are obviously being set up for use again later down the track. You’ll be able to pick up the vast majority of them without too much hassle especially if you’re a long time adventure game player. There are a few puzzles which feel like they’re an homage to the ridiculous puzzles of yore (the pillow on a broom is one example of this) however for the most part you likely won’t find yourself stuck at one point for an inordinate amount of time.
The dialogue choice system is probably Dreamfall Chapter’s stand out feature as it’s leaps and bounds above what’s in most other story-first games. Instead of being given a bunch of options to choose from with just a small blurb to go on you’re instead treated to the inner monologue of the character as if they’re making that decision. This has two benefits, the first being that you’ll always be sure that the decision you make is in line with what you choose. Secondly you can get a feel for how Zoe thinks her decision will pan out which can sometimes change your mind on how you want a particular situation to play out. On the flip side however this does require you to go through the options fully before making a decision as the dialogue that follows is usually brief and provides no further insight that what can be gleaned from listening to their musings prior.
Mechanically the game is pretty much bang on with performance being great and not a crash to be seen throughout my playtime. However the look to select system feels a little wonky, often requiring you to shift your character and camera around multiple times in order to be able to interact with something. This can be rather frustrating when you notice something pop up (a little eye indicates you can interact with something) only to have it disappear the second you stop to try and click on it. It’s not something that will prevent you from progressing within Dreamfall Chapters, but it does feel like it happens more than it should.
Dreamfall Chapters does a good job of setting up the world that the rest of the game will take place in, reintroducing many of the characters from the previous games and filling in their stories of the past year that Zoe’s been out of action. Whilst the majority of the story is exposed to you directly there’s a fair amount of detail crammed into Zoe’s journal which can be a little bit of a chore to read through. Given the time between the previous game and this one though it almost feels like it’d be worthwhile playing through it again as some of the larger story elements rely heavily on the back story that was built back then. Indeed Dreamfall Chapters isn’t designed for those who are just becoming familiar with the franchise as it leans heavily on what came before it.
In terms of the story of this instalment it’s clear that the primary focus was on setting up the initial world that the following chapters will build upon. Considering the wealth of background that’s available in 2 other games they can somewhat get a free pass for not developing the characters much however if you’re looking for the story of Dreamfall Chapters to go places quickly you’ll unfortunately be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong though, there’s a lot to love in here, you’re just not going to be cemented to your seat from the second you click play.
Dreamfall Chapters fills a hole that’s long been in many gamer’s hearts, continuing the story of Zoe Castillo that felt like it was cut abruptly short at the end of the previous game. It might not have next generation graphics or play as smoothly as some other adventurers other there however it makes up for it with one of the best dialogue systems I have seen in recent times. It will be interesting to see how the player choices pan out in the greater story as they’re making a big deal about player agency and I hopeful that they will be able to deliver on it. Dreamfall Chapters really is only for fans of the series but should your interest be piqued I would heartily recommend making the investment to play through its predecessors.
Dreamfall Chapters is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 3 hours with 86% of the achievements unlocked. The writer was a backer of the Dreamfall Chapters Kickstarter at the $500 level.
I was never much of a fan of adventure style games as a kid which is why I find it oddly surprising that I’ve grown to love them as an adult. Sure the pixelart style brings with it that warm blanket of nostalgia but I really can’t say I enjoyed these types of games back in their original heyday. The renaissance that these types of games are going through has helped me make up for lost time somewhat, especially considering the number of games I churn through in a year. A Golden Wake, developed by Grundislav Games and published by Wadjet Eye Games, is the latest installment in the pixelart adventure genre, sporting craftsmanship that’s well above it’s 1 man studio station.
Alife Banks had everything going for him, a great job in the best city in the world and the respect and admiration of his peers. At least that’s what he thought as his namesake bred jealousy among his peers and one fateful day he was framed for something he didn’t commit. Undeterred however Alfie set out for the wild lands of Miami where a new real estate development, called Coral Gables, was underway. It was here that he’d restore the family name to the glory that it once had, all while making him rich and famous in the process.
I’ve come to notice that there’s 2 distinct kinds of pixelart games: those that use the medium for it’s minimalistic nature (often imbuing their own artistic style into it) and those who seek to recreate the style that was present during the golden age of gaming. A Golden Wake is very much the latter, lovingly recreating the arts style that was made popular by the numerous titles released under the LucasArts brand. It’s not exactly what you’d call a pretty game but the style is most certainly deliberate, an attempt at capturing the essence of what the 1920s would have been like.
A Golden Wake plays like your traditional adventure game although, like many of its modern brethren, it manages to avoid many of the pitfalls that plagued such titles of decades past. You’ve got a small inventory which holds all the items you’ll find on your adventures (of which you’ll ever only have a handful of) and a number of puzzles that you’ll have to solve before you can move the story forward. Some of these puzzles are pretty rudimentary, like having to speak to certain people, whilst others will force you to look around the environment searching for that clue which will allow you to progress forward. If you’re a long time fan of the adventure genre you’ll definitely feel at home in A Golden Wake but even newcomers to the genre should find it easy enough to pick up.
For the most part the game plays pretty well as the puzzles are logical, sequential and can often be solved within the space you’ll find them in. There are a few puzzles which had me stumped for a good while however, mostly because I was following a line of thinking that didn’t match up with the creator’s. It’s hard for me to fault the game for this as once I found the answers it was obvious that I was overthinking the solution. The game also tries to prod you in the right direction by leaving areas open that you still need to visit in order to do something which can be a huge help when you think you were done with a particular area.
There seem to be a few teething issues with the initial release however, seemingly around the Steam overlay and ALT-TABing the game. If I ever answered a chat message from one of my friends within the game it seemed to think one of the keys was stuck down and any dialogue would rapidly flit by. This would be fine if I could, say, reload from a checkpoint to hear it again but unfortunately that relies on you saving constantly. Whilst I don’t think I missed any super critical dialogue because of it (when it happened I’d immediately save and restart the game) it happened often enough to cause me a non-trivial amount of frustration.
Like I’ve said numerous times before I can often forgive even some of the gravest mistakes a game makes if the story is good however for A Golden Wake there’s not much I can overlook, unfortunately. Whilst I can appreciate the effort put into building Alfie’s character up the eventual turn happens far too suddenly and, if you choose certain dialogue choices, makes absolutely 0 sense. The last half is definitely far more engaging than the first which you could potentially attribute to all the setup that happens however it honestly feels like the story just goes no where for a while before finally making up its mind on where it needs to be. Credit is to be given for creating what feels like a realistic depiction of the 1920s however, and not just the romanticised version that many writers would have otherwise created.
A Golden Wake might not seem like an ambitious project on the surface, being yet another pixelart adventure game, however I can’t think of any other game that I could directly compare it to. Sure the adventure game mechanics are familiar and the art style is straight out of the LucasArt playbook but none have tried to create an experience like that found in A Golden Wake. Whilst it’s far from a perfect execution, including a story that goes no where for half the play time and a client that still harbors a few bugs, I do admire the ambition behind it. Still it’s hard for me to recommend it for anyone but die hard fans of the genre as they’re probably the only ones who’ll appreciate the craftsmanship and ambition behind A Golden Wake.
A Golden Wake is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 4 hours with 22% of the achievements unlocked. A copy of this game was provided to The Refined Geek by Wadjet Eye Games for the purposes of reviewing.
A lot of retro styled games rely on the aesthetic to conjure up a sense of nostalgia for us long time gamers, hoping to link us up with experiences past in the hope that some of it will translate across. Back when that idea was still new I have to admit that it worked quite well although as time has gone on the differences between modern retro titles and their ancestors have become more stark, removing that sense of nostalgia completely. There are few games that manage to capture both the aesthetic and the essence of what made those games so memorable and I’m happy to say that I now count Shovel Knight among them.
You are Shovel Knight, a brave warrior whose weapon of choice isn’t exactly mainstream. You’ve seen many adventures always with your most trusted compatriate, Shield Knight, by your side. However one day, when exploring the Tower of Fate, you both fall under the power of the Dark Amulet. When you awaken Shield Knight is no where to be seen and you give up adventuring while you mourn her loss. However The Enchantress, an evil and powerful witch, has arisen in your absence spreading her evil across your land. When you hear she has unlocked the Tower of Fate once again you resolve to pick up your shovel once again and to rid your land of the darkness that now grips it.
Shovel Knight is visually reminiscent of the action adventure games of old with many of the visual elements being readily recognisable. Indeed the rendition was done so well that I figured there was no way it was using some kind of modern engine as everything really did have a retro feel about it. The end credits revealed it does use Box2D for its physics which has obviously been tuned to give it a much more retro feel. The music and foley also feels like it’s right out of a NES title, retaining that lo-fi quality and signature sound that games of that era had. If I’m honest it feels like the most honest recreation of an old pixelart game to date, eschewing any modern improvements in favour of keeping that nostalgia feeling alive.
In terms of gameplay Shovel Knight again feels awfully familiar, taking the tried and true mechanics from games of ages past and adding in a little of its own flair. The combat feels much like the Zelda games of old where you’ll be jumping, dodging and swinging your weapon wildly in order to defeat your foes. There’s also the tried and true platform sections, many of which rely on you using the various relics you’ve acquired in order to progress past them. You can also upgrade/modify your character in order to suit your playstyle, enabling a multitude of different ways to progress through the game. Lastly, if that isn’t enough for you, there’s dozens of achievements and challenges for you to complete, some of which require a great deal of skill to accomplish.
In the beginning the combat feels a little weird which I can pretty much wholly attribute to my use of the keyboard. You see just like the games which Shovel Knight takes inspiration from it was most certainly designed with a controller in mind as the keyboard setup is most certainly not intuitive. However once I got past that hurdle I actually felt that it was quite forgiving, especially after you got up a couple of the more broken items (the Phase Amulet especially). Indeed after the first couple bosses I found that I could usually cheese my way through them after a single death, something I definitely couldn’t say about say Zelda back in the day.
That being said the platforming, whilst being well thought out and challenging in the right ways most of the time, had more “fuck you player” moments than I’d like. These are things that you can’t plan for (like enemies appearing out of no where) or the introduction of new mechanics without an indication as to what they do. This is somewhat in the spirit of the game as a lot of titles from early nineties didn’t do this either, however that doesn’t stop these things from sucking out some of the fun in an otherwise great game. The rather generous recovery mechanic makes up for this a little bit although that can sometimes lead you into a horrible spiral of dying simply because you’re trying to recover your gold.
What is quite impressive about Shovel Knight is the sheer amount of variety that’s in the game. Every level has its own distinct theme with numerous different types of enemies and mechanics, meaning that no 2 levels feel quite the same. Sure there are some things you’ll learn in early levels that will come in handy later on but for the most part each level will be an experience in learning how to deal with the various challenges at hand. This then feeds into the bosses and the wandering encounters in the overworld, each of which has its own unique mechanics which you’ll need to exploit.
Actually thinking about it more this is probably one of the better examples of how to design to a pick up/put down style platform (the 3DS in Shovel Knight’s case). Each of the levels can be over in 10~20 minutes, even less for the wandering boss encounters or the other loot extravaganza levels, and all of them have their own style. Usually this would be something of a negative however in Shovel Knight’s case it actually made for a rather well paced game, one I invested a lot more time in than I would have otherwise done previously. Sure it wasn’t an exceptionally long game by any means but I still far more engaged with it than I have done with many of my previous reviews.
The story of Shovel Knight is fairly simplistic, usually being not much more than something to provide some witty dialogue between you and the boss you’re about to fight, but it’s more than enough to keep the game going. It really only comes to fruition in the last hour or so of gameplay and in that respect it does tie everything together quite well. However Shovel Knight isn’t a game you should be playing for the story as its mechanics are by far the strong point.
Shovel Knight sets the standard for titles that want to capture that feeling of games from ages past, faithfully recreating everything in a wonderful take on the old school action adventure. The graphics, music and sound all feel like they were ripped out of a long abandon title and then given life in a modern game environment. The gameplay, once you get past the initial teething phase, is very well done even if it can feel a little too easy at times. The story is probably the weakest aspect of the whole Shovel Knight experience but, thankfully, it doesn’t detract too heavily from it. If you’re a long time gamer like myself you’ll find a lot to love in Shovel Knight and I’d heartily recommend giving it a play through.
Shovel Knight is available on the PC, Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo Wii U right now for $15, $14.99 and $14.99 respectively. Total game time was 6 hours with 27% of the achievements unlocked.
I feel it’s pertinent that I get this out of the way before I start the review in earnest: Roguelikes give me the shits. I can understand the appeal that many find in them, figuring out a strategy to deal with whatever might come before you, however I really detest games that punish you with things that are completely out of your control. You get to a point where you think you’re doing great only to find that you hadn’t accounted for situation X which then proceeds to tank your game, forcing you to redo the entire section just so you can account for it. Whilst Gods Will Be Watching isn’t exactly a Roguelike (it describes itself as a Point and Click adventure, which it partly is) many of its gameplay elements take inspiration from the genre and, unfortunately, are the downfall of what would otherwise be a brilliant game.
Gods Will Be Watching is one of those games that started out as a entry to the Ludlam Dare game jam which received such wide acclaim that it then went onto a successful IndieGoGo campaign for development into a fully fledged title. You play as Sergeant Burden, a long serving member of the establishment who’s infiltrated himself into the idealistic rebellion group called Xenolifer. Your mission is to play along with them, gain their trust and hopefully limit the amount of damage they can do. However it becomes apparent that it’s not black and white when it comes to Xenolifer, or even your own organisation, and therein is where the real challenge lies. Can you protect everyone? Are you strong enough to make the tough choices at the right time? These are the questions you’ll be faced with and living with those decisions might be easier said than done.
Since the theme for the original Ludlam Dare entry was “minimalism” Gods Will Be Watching took the cue to use the current ultra-minimalistic pixelart styling that other games like Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery EP are known for. There’s not a huge amount of visual variety in the game with the vast majority of it taking place within a single frame for each chapter of the game. It serves its purpose however, conveying the numerous visual clues and other elements form part of the core game play. It all kind of blurs into the background after a while as for the most part you’ll be spending your time in menus rather than constantly searching for things that you need to click on.
As I alluded to earlier the gameplay of Gods Will Be Watching is a mix between a traditional point and click adventure and a Roguelike. Each scene has a specific objective that needs to be completed in order to progress to the next chapter. Usually this objective requires you to play with a set variables in order to achieve the desired outcome so the majority of your time will be spent balancing them all out. Sometimes these variables are obvious, given to you in plain numbers, other times they’re hidden in the form of visual clues that you’ll have to decipher. There’s also several different ways of dealing with the problem at hand, some of which will make your life easier or harder depending on the objective. It’s an interesting concept however I feel that the execution has let it down somewhat.
You see I get the idea that there’s variables that need maximising and that you probably won’t get everything to go exactly the way you want however the inclusion of randomization feels like a big middle finger to the player. They mention this at the start, forewarning you that failure is to be expected and that you should just keep on trying, however the randomization can and will completely fuck you over numerous times before you get it right. It’s not even a matter of strategy after a while as even the best strategy can get completely wrecked by the random number generator spurting out a couple unfortunate numbers in a row. In a decently designed game this would be a low chance occurrence but in Gods Will Be Watching it happens constantly.
I’d probably be more forgiving if failing a chapter didn’t mean having to start all over from the start again, giving RNGesus another chance to fuck me over. Take for instance the torture scene where you have to distribute damage between the two characters in order to make sure you make it through the day. If your begs happen to fail, or you don’t get the response that allows you to rest, you’ll likely end up killing one of the characters. This isn’t to mention the Russian Roulette scene which can completely fuck you over, even if you use every trick at your disposal. The desert scene is even worse for this as even when I was doing things nigh on perfectly I still got ruined by random events that were out of my control which is where I ended up leaving the game.
Which brings me to the real reason why the random elements piss me off so much: the story is actually intriguing and one where I felt I was crafting my own little narrative within the game. Looking over the forums you can see how varied everyone’s experiences is, something that I really admire in a game when its done well. However like many games I’ve played as of late the mechanics of Gods Will Be Watching are just so onerous that those tasty morsels of story are so few and far between that they are simply not enough to keep you going. It’s a real shame as after reading a couple other reviews I’ve found out there’s still 2 chapters to go but, honestly, I just can’t be arsed to slog through the numerous rounds of RNG roulette in order to see them.
Gods Will Be Watching is a game I really wanted to like as it had all the makings of other titles in the genre that I had considered good. The simplistic presentation and story with a some level of depth to it, coupled with the ability to craft your own narrative above that, has great potential. However the Rougelike elements destroyed any hopes of that happening, trapping the story behind too many RNG determined gates forcing the player to spend hours redoing content in order to get to the next chapter. I’m sure there will be many people who say I didn’t get the point of it or some other bullshit but the simple fact is that Gods Will Be Watching failed to provide the writer with a good game experience, hiding its moments of brilliance behind mechanics that are simply not fun to play.
Gods Will Be Watching is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 5 hours with 10% of the achievements unlocked.
It used to be that telling a story through the video game medium was an impossible task for those who weren’t versed in the multitudes of skills required to pull it off. However the development of game making tools like, funnily enough, Game Maker have enabled many brilliant stories to be told. Such games are often very simplistic in nature however complex game mechanics aren’t a requirement for a good story and the indie game industry has flourished by embodying this principle. Always Sometimes Monsters is one such game, putting the player in numerous morally ambiguous situations and letting the player decided their ultimate fate.
This is it, your big break. Ever since college you’ve known that you want to be a writer and finally you’ve landed a deal with a big name publisher. With the love of your life by your side it seems that nothing can go wrong and the future you always dreamed of is within your grasp. Fast forward a couple years though and everything has fallen apart, you still haven’t finished your novel and your soul mate is marrying someone else. What do you do? Do you wallow in self pity, pining for the future you could have had? Or do you risk everything to be with them, abandoning what remains of your life to pursue that dream you once held in your arms? Your decisions will shape your destiny and, ultimately, what kind of person the world thinks you are.
Always Sometimes Monsters was created in RPG Maker which has brought us other amazing based story games like To The Moon. Due to the limitations of the RPG Maker engine Always Sometimes Monsters has a similar visual feel to that other games based on it although it does have its own distinct style. The animations are extremely rudimentary with a lot of the actions just being the walk cycle repeated. It’s hard for me to judge Always Sometimes Monsters harshly on its simplistic nature as that’s not the reason you’ll be playing it but after playing so many similar titles it was one aspect that stood out to me.
At its heart Always Sometimes Monsters is an adventure game, one where you’re forever on the quest to get enough cash to move you along to the next location. There’s numerous ways for you to scrounge up the dough you need from taking odd jobs at the employment office, doing favours for people or even more nefarious means. Along the way you’ll meet many of your long time friends who fill in the backstory of your life and how you interact with them will determine how everything pans out. For the most part there doesn’t appear to be an outright good and bad choice, leaving it up to you to determine where your moral boundaries lie.
Indeed Always Sometimes Monsters prides itself on the ambiguity of the decisions you’ll be making and how they affect the final outcome of the story. You do have a lot of power to alert the story how you see fit however the mechanics of how it works is somewhat cumbersome. There are numerous points where you’ll be asked a question you would have no idea what the actual answer was (like how you and the love of your life broke up) and the answer you give actually determines what happened. I’d feel better about it if there was a “true” reason and the difference between that and your response determined how some characters reacted to you but actually determining what happened with a single response just didn’t feel right.
There were several moments in Always Sometimes Monsters where I felt myself being drawn in, where the characters started to feel real and their problems echoed with those I’d encountered in my own life. However those moments are few and far between as Always Sometimes Monsters seems intent on beating you over the head with repetitive, menial tasks in order to further the story. The long quest for getting money at each section often leads you to taking on jobs that are incredibly boring and take up an inordinate amount of time. Then, by the time you actually get to another one of these nuggets of brilliant writing, you’re either angry or bored and the impact is lost on you. It got so bad that I tried to find a way to crack open the save files to give myself unlimited funds, just so I could actually enjoy the game.
However the numerous choices in the game unfortunately don’t add up to a cohesive story and the ending feels like a grab bag of the results of the various events you were involved in over the course of the story. Indeed probably one of the worst things is when you go through your journal and are asked, explicitly, how you feel about every single event in the game. The heavy reliance on choice is obviously done to make the game experience more personal to you, as everyone’s experience will be different depending on so many factors, however it just makes Always Sometimes Monsters story feel confused, disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying. For a game that has not much else to rely on messing up the story means the core experience unfortunately falls flat on its face.
Always Sometimes Monsters strived to provide an experience where the player was in control of their own destiny but unfortunately delivered an experience that fell short of its ambition. I wanted to like it, I really did, as those moments where the story shone through were truly great but they were so few and far between that the larger flaws of the gameplay and storyline are what leave a lasting impression. Your mileage may vary however, as many fellow reviewers have noted, but unfortunately for this writer Always Sometimes Monsters isn’t a game I can recommend.
Always Sometimes Monsters is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 7 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked.
In the past the only genre of game that could get away with being intentionally difficult to play was survival horror. The reasoning there was that it built tension, mimicking the feeling of panic you would feel should you find yourself in the same situation as is on screen. However the past couple years have given rise to a genre of games, all of them from independent developers, that hinge on the idea of being incredibly frustrating to play. It’s hard to understand the comedic effect that this usually has, typically resulting in a whole bunch of emergent game play characteristics that become the game’s main attraction. Octodad: Dadliest Catch is one such game, combining incredibly obtuse controls with ragdoll physics that results in much hilarity.
You’re an octopus, one that’s managed to integrate himself into normal society to the point that everyone thinks you’re just a regular guy. Indeed even your wife and kids don’t know your secret, blissfully unaware of the chaos that seems to ensue wherever you go. There is one person though that knows who you are, a chef called Fujimoto, and he’s made it his only goal in life to reveal you for who you are and, most unfortunately, cook you up and serve you. What follows is the tale of you trying to integrate into society whilst attempting to flee Chef Fujimoto’s attempts to turn you into moderately priced sushi rolls.
Octodad reminds me of the educational games I use to play as a kid, having a distinctly cartoony style that uses heavily stylization. Initially I thought it was a Unity game as I’ve seen a couple other games with similar visual styles (kind of like how Flash games tended to look similar) but it’s actually a homegrown solution meaning the visual style is very deliberate. Whilst it’s not going to win awards I definitely like it and feel that it’s very fitting to the game. It also has the added bonus of making Octodad playable on pretty much anything which is great considering what a wide appeal the game itself has.
As I alluded to earlier Octodad relies on the unpredictability of the controls to generate the majority of the challenge. Primarily you’ll be doing things that would be considered trivial in most games, picking up an item, moving an item, walking through a hallway of precariously placed objects, however you’ll likely be unable to do that without knocking something over or accidentally picking something up. This wouldn’t be an issue however anything out of the normal will attract the attention of nearby humans and, should you continue your flailing, the jig will be up and it will be back to the ocean for you.
The controls take a bit of getting used to as you have to constantly switch between modes in order to get things done. The first mode is where you can pick up and move objects about, simple enough you say, however the controls don’t translate like you think they would. Then when you switch to the movement mode all the rules you learnt in the other mode go out the window and now you’re on an eternal quest to put your feet in the right position whilst not knocking anything over. Thankfully the devs included snap points for a lot of the main objectives as otherwise there’d be hours of frustration in order to get things to work just right.
Whilst the unpredictability of the physics engine is a feature, not a bug, there are a some unfortunate glitches which can be a tad annoying. You can get yourself into positions where the camera seems to forget where you are and no amount of movement spamming seems to bring it right (reloading a checkpoint will, however). There’s also no way to tell what surfaces you can and can’t adhere yourself to and even when you can the amount of gripping power you have seems to vary wildly depending on the situation. I will admit that the latter seems intentional to an extent but sometimes it felt like the game was punishing you for no reason in particular.
I was pleasantly surprised by Octodad’s story as whilst it’s lacking in depth it certainly isn’t lacking in heart. The subtitles for your lines are great, making you empathize with a character that, in all honesty, has no business being in the position that he’s in. It’s also acutely self aware of the absurdity of its own situation, thankfully not to the point of overdoing it like a lot of games tend to do. It’s the kind of story that I feel would be great for someone with kids as they’ll love the absurdity of Octodad’s flailing arms whilst learning a few things along the way.
Octodad: Dadliest catch is a charming indie frustration title that breaks away from many of the traditional game norms in favour of its own brand of absurdity. The game mechanics might not be complex, nor the puzzles particularly challenging, but it is a great deal of fun to play. The are some minor technical hiccups that mar the otherwise solid execution but they’re not game breaking and indeed you’d almost consider some of them part of the game itself. There’s a lot to like in Octodad: Dadliest catch and I’d definitely recommend a play through.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $14.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with around 3 hours of total play time and 13% of the achievements unlocked.
There’s no question that the Double Fine Adventure was responsible for showing that the Kickstarter model could work for games. The now miserly looking target of $400,000 blew by quickly and the final tally saw it being funded a whopping 800% over what they initially hoped to grab. Now I’ll have to be honest here, I wasn’t completely convinced that it would be worth backing because whilst I appreciate Tim Schaefer’s ability to make games people love I just haven’t been a big fan of his. My mind was changed slightly after I played through The Cave however and when Broken Age came up in one of the Humble Bundles I figured it was worth the price of admission and the first chapter was released just recently.
Broken Age puts you in control of one of two characters. I initially chose to be Shay (voiced by none other than Elijah Wood), a young man who seems to be the only passenger on a vast space ship. It’s not your regular kind of space ship however as everything seems to be very….childish with animated stuff animals running around and all the controls reminiscent of Fisher Price toys for toddlers. Indeed this spaceship seems to act more like a prison than a safe haven as the overly motherly computer foils any attempt that you might make to break the monotony.
At any time though, should you want a change of pace or you’re stuck on a puzzle that just doesn’t seem to have a proper solution, you can switch over to Vella, a young woman who has been given the honour of participating in the maiden’s feast. Nearly all your family is incredibly excited for you with the notable exception of your grandfather, a grizzled war veteran from a time long past. As you start to enquire about what the maiden’s feast actually entails the shocking truth comes out: you’re to be eaten by the huge beast Mog Chothra in order to appease him and avoid conflict with the village. Understandably you don’t want anything to do with this and vow to defeat Mog Chothra once and for all.
The art style of Broken Age is simply delightful with every scene exuding this feeling of meticulously hand painted scenes coming to life before your eyes. I’ll admit that the start I felt it was somewhat simplistic but as you play through you get a real feeling for just how detailed many of the scenes are, especially the ones that contain puzzle elements. Indeed when you revisit places throughout your adventure it becomes apparent just how much detail is there which you simply didn’t notice on the first time through. The art style also fits the slightly whimsical nature of the game which makes it even more impressive to me as I’m not usually one for that kind of style.
Broken Age is your typical point and click adventure game where you’ll spend your time shuffling your character around the environment, looking for things to interact with and solving various kinds of puzzles along the way. Unlike other titles in this genre Broken Age doesn’t attempt to put a unique mechanic or twist on the way the game plays through so it is really, truly an old school point and click adventure. Double Fine has gone to the effort to eliminate the inventory hell that plagued traditional point and clicks but apart from that the game would not be out of place, mechanically at least, if it was released a decade or two ago.
For the most part the puzzles are pretty rudimentary, usually requiring you to have the inquisitive kind of mind that long time players of this genre will already have. Most of the time you can solve the puzzles by simply clicking around and finding the things you can interact with and, should that fail, a quick rummage through the inventory typically gets you out of trouble. The final big puzzles of both Vella and Shay’s story lines present more of a challenge, definitely requiring you to think non-linearly, but they provide the lone challenge in an otherwise rather easy game.
One tip I’ll give without spoiling any of the story line is that, as far as I could see, there was one and only one solution to some puzzles. There were a couple times when I had thought that I had achieved a certain goal without needing to take a certain (seemingly obvious) path but found out later, after coming up blank on every other path, that I needed to do the obvious thing in order to progress. Thus if you think you’ve managed to skip over a section or picked up a useless inventory item you’re wrong and there’s something you’re missing.
However harping on the rudimentary-ness of the mechanics and complaining about how I over-thought some of the puzzles is a distraction away from the real core of Broken Age: its story. Initially I thought it was rather superfluous and poorly written, mostly due to me choosing Shay’s path first, however as you play on you realise that’s the point of that section and it’s setting you up for the grander plot. What follows is a beautiful story of two people looking to overcome tradition, in one way or another, attempting to cast off the shackles that have bound them since birth.
I will lament the fact that it’s episodic though as whilst I thought at one point this would be the future of games I always find myself wanting to play the whole thing through and grow disinterested in it between the lulls in content. This is not a fault of the game per se, more a gripe from a person who loves to envelope themselves in a game from beginning to end as one continuous experience. I understand the reasons for releasing Broken Age in this way but I would have not been mad if I had to wait another year to play the whole thing in its entirety.
Broken Age is a wonderful game, combining a whimsical art style with the tried and true adventure game play that Tim Schaefer is well renown for. It stays true to its genre, eschewing the current indie norm of adding in mechanics to distinguish themselves and instead opts for the more seamless improvements, ones that long time adventure gamers will be thankful for. Broken Age is definitely a game for the fans of Tim Schaefer and the adventure genre so I’ll stop short of recommending everyone play it but should you fall into either of the 2 previous categories then it’s definitely worth a look in.
Broken Age is available right now on PC for $24.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours.